Schadenfreude is a mighty powerful thing. The joy we see from others’ lunatic pain (not so much misery) often presents itself as a mild tonic from the trouble of the world. As mere observers of such a circus-like display, we can be reminded of life’s joys, handled with an equally boisterous nature around it. Naysayers may frown over the perceived imitability, but the level of attention and care often seen is taken to a high enough level where our common sense outweighs those braver to risk injury, cognition, perhaps life overall. For Johnny Knoxville and his rowdy group of friends, they’ve spent two decades on and off looking to risk many things, but also prove life has its moments of bliss by taking action. A decade distanced from the last time this crew was together on screen with their antics, Jackass Forever invites those seasoned fans, and relative newcomers (myself included) who only know small bits and pieces of their legacy, back into their world. Likely the last rodeo in the classic incarnation, but hopefully far from the end as the simplicity of pranks, pratfalls, and mild bodily torture is keen to impact a fresh generation.
As a cinephile whose tastes admittedly skew toward a few weird directions, even I couldn’t get excited about the Jackass series in its heyday. Even when their first film in 2002 hit cable, I was still too young to appreciate their rampant glory for the archaic and unrefined. So yes, I had to do my homework, excluding 2013’s Bad Grandpa which I somehow still remember fondly. What I had seen with Knoxville and his comrades, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña among them, bore a shivering stench of shock and awe. Not unlike John Waters on his best days. The same can be said of Forever, albeit taking a more temporal tone.
More than a decade since their last time together cracking wise, and slightly less that since the tragic death of colleague Ryan Dunn, the remaining teammates sally forth in the name of utter crudity, aware of their mortality. Even the greatest of heroes must know when it’s time to either hang up the cape, or at least pass on their wisdom to the next generation. And through these stunts, we see varying methods by which a figurative torch is passed. Introducing new faces into the franchise such as Eric Andre, Rachel Wolfson, Zach Holmes, and Sean “Poopies” McInerney, there’s a fair chance the madness can continue.
And oh, how it is maddening. The formula has not changed, only the stakes. It always begins with a grand scale opening, this time it’s Godzilla-style. From there, stunts usually preclude discernment, with a mix of new pieces and revised classics harkening all the way back to the original series. On one end, there’s smaller bits like “The Cup Test”, like a challenge of safety endurance involving hockey pucks and pogo sticks. In the middle, unnamed pieces, such as requiring the often self-deprecating Steve-O to share the spotlight with a beehive. “Why am I doing this? Why am I Steve-O?”, he ponders on the weight of his job profile, with pain’s icy hand waiting behind. And on the more elaborate side, we have the frustration of lighting farts on fire, giant treadmills, and Knoxville brushing off fate as once more he tries to bullfight.
All the while, these elder statesmen proceed as they often would in the past, looking no less for the wear, even with being so long out of practice. They declare Knoxville their captain, even as he stares possible life-altering injury directly in the face. Even if it’s an honorary designation at this point, the role couldn’t be more official. He and director Jeff Tremaine are still the puppet masters taking ownership of everyone’s potential medical bills. And they might be the highest, if the visual evidence proves correct. Any one of the previous films may be easy to discredit, solely on lack of refinement. And I was probably among them, until I warmed up to their ideas, and it quickly unlocked a corner of my brain that long ignored that inability to look away from cheap thrills.
It’s titillation of the utmost regard, and everyone involved knows that. Aiming for immediate shock cinema might not be their prime objective, and it really isn’t. Moments like those land within their wheelhouse automatically. The goal is to enjoy a bit of nonconformist fun, not caring a cuss for the risk. They joke about that prevalence as a method of calm before cameras roll, but with most of the team in their early 50s, their silent complaints do take on heightened consequence which they also pass along. Andre and Holmes, in particular, blend in well, professing their fondness for the original show, and elation for being invited. May their optimism carry forward should there be a continuation.
Knowing Paramount and MTV’s confidence, I would not be surprised to see the next generation move ahead with a fifth film. If Scream 5 was a success riding another healthy nostalgia wave, I couldn’t not see this Jackass series branch out a little further. Jackass Forever states very clear at the top not to recreate the stunts enacted. But they never said anything about imitating the zest for life Knoxville and company instill with each of their wild charades. And that’s perhaps the inner core this franchise has kept so close to its heart for two decades, a firm 90 minute reminder that life should be lived well, mostly by principle and not always by direct example. Heed the warnings, but still don’t be afraid to enjoy. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Jackass Forever opens February 4; rated R for strong crude material and dangerous stunts, graphic nudity and language throughout; 96 minutes.